Heian building
Heian building

The term Heian is derived from modern-day Kyoto’s previous name of Heian-kyo, a city founded in 794. The literal translation of Heian-kyo is “Capital of Peace and Tranquility” and was meant to reflect its peaceful and protected surroundings. The literal translation of Heian is “peace” in Japanese.

Located near the village of Uda, between the Katsura and Kamo Rivers, and with Mount Hiei providing spectacular natural geographical protection, the new capital was similar in design to the Chinese city Chang’an and was built according to Chinese feng shui principles. Heian-kyo was the center of political power and the capital of Japan until 1868, when the Meiji Restoration saw Emperor Kammu move to the city of Edo.

Edo was then renamed as Tokyo (Eastern Capital) to illustrate the shift in power. The Imperial Court remained at Heian-kyo. The Heian period witnessed the emergence of a Japanese identity that was distinct from Chinese influences and is often regarded as a golden age of Japanese culture.

The Heian period can be broken into three distinct eras. The first period, referred to as the Early Heian era, witnessed the foundation of Heian-Kyo in 794 b.c.e. and extended to around the late 960s b.c.e. The Middle Heian period extended to 1067 c.e. and was characterized by the rule of the Fujiwara clan and their courtly behavior. The Late Heian period extended to 1192 and is known for the insei (cloistered government) and for providing the framework for the establishment of the feudal system in Japan.

The move to Heian-kyo from the capital Nagaoka was necessary to curb the increasing struggles over the throne. The ongoing clan struggles resulted in Emperor Kammu taking drastic political and social reforms to try to stabilize the situation. As a result the Heian period experienced one of the longest periods of sustained peace in classical Japanese history.

Four noble families attempted to control the political scene during the Early Heian period. The Minamoto, Tachibana, Taira, and Fujiwara families all tried to influence the political atmosphere for the benefit of their own interests and pursuits. During the Middle period the Fujiwara family clearly dominated the government and because of familial ties influenced the imperial family.

The families required the services of the warrior classes to provide protection (much like security guards) thus creating the initial surge in the samurai and bushi numbers. Another important family that emerged during the Late Heian period, the Taira, eventually overthrew the Fujiwara family. The Minamoto clan then overthrew the Taira.

The Early period was also defined by the start of a clear religious doctrinal change. There was movement away from the Chinese influenced Neo-Confucianism toward a Buddhist religious perspective that echoed aspects of Japan’s indigenous religion Shinto. The imperial court adopted Mahayana Buddhism relatively quickly and it in turn merged with aspects of Shinto to create an essentially Japanese religion (called Shinbutso Shugo) that flourished.

It was during this period that Shinto architecture and art started to transform and mass temple building began. Buddhist artisans were abundant and produced sculptures as religious objects, but also as art objects for wealthy families. Stoneware and bronze were used by both the imperial households and the lay people, while the emperor preferred silver for monastic and royal events.

Metal craft reached its pinnacle during the Heian era, particularly during the Middle to Late periods, where samurai armor incorporated various motifs (according to the house that they served) and sword-smiths began to engrave their swords with their names. Armor was held in such high regard that the most powerful families and warlords offered them to Shinto shrines as holy relics.

The Early period also witnessed the introduction of new Buddhist sects called the Tendai (Heavenly Terrace) in 805 b.c.e. by Saicho and the Shingon (True Word), and in 806 b.c.e. by Kukai. The introduction of these sects contributed to stylistic changes in architecture—for example, Shingon temples adopted the use of the pagoda.

Pure Land Buddhism also began to take root within Heian society and around the same time Korean monks started introducing the now well-known Zen (or Ch’an) Buddhism. Gardens were used as contemplative areas and there was a movement toward meditative practice. Cultural festivals (Buddhist, Shinto, and Confucian) shaped the whole Heian period, and more festivals were introduced and conceived, including the Cherry-Blossom Feast and the Feast of Red Autumn Foliage.

The concept of art underwent a transformation during the Heian periods—it was used for aesthetic as well as religious purposes, and new art practices were created. Art for art’s sake was encouraged and artists, poets, and writers began to create and recognize a distinct Japanese identity.

Secular paintings and art have been referred to in literature of the day; however very little survived to the present. Japanese artists would paint sutras (Buddhist writings) or intricate landscapes onto folding fans, which became highly desirable and exported items during this period.

Heian painting
Heian painting

Literature also started to become fashionable, especially diaries of court providing details of life inside the palace. The most popular book of the early era was Makura no soshi (The Pillow Book) written by Sei Shonagon. Sei came from a literary family, her father Kiyohara Motosuke (a poet) and her great-grandfather the well-known Fukayabu.

It in turn influenced many other writers to pen their experiences in the imperial household, thus creating a distinct phase of early Japanese literature. Monogatari-e (illustrations for novels) emerged during the late 10th century and was viewed as the perfect coupling of prose and painting. It became the preferred pastime of those in the imperial household and during the Late Heian period, art competitions and shows were commonplace.

The Heian Middle to Late period is generally viewed as the most productive sociocultural period in Japanese history, as it marked a move away from Chinese influence on culture, society, and religion toward the creation of an essentially Japanese identity. The Middle Heian period witnessed a flourishing of literary and artistic pursuits and is often described as the “early” history of Japan.

During the late stages of the Early Heian period and blossoming during the Middle period, a new writing system was developed. Based upon syllables (hiragana and katakana), the new kana writing system allowed for the creation of Japanese literature and texts without depending upon kanji. It initiated a new sociocultural identity, a unique Japanese perspective that would profoundly influence Japanese life.

Calligraphy and calligraphers were attached to imperial offices and were required to provide calligraphy for things as diverse as imperial temple walls and hanging scrolls. New calligraphy styles such as “Women’s Hand” became widely recognized because of their use in calligraphic poems. It was also popular to determine one’s character by the style of writing, and use of medium.

A favorite pastime of imperial ladies was to swap poetry in elaborate folded pieces of paper, using different fasteners to convey hidden meanings. Decorative paper was highly prized and paper collages became an art form that has continued to the present time. The majority of lay people (other than the warrior classes) were not exposed to such hobbies as most were illiterate.

Literary forms experienced change with the advent of court diaries and their tendency toward long sections of prose and observation. The Middle to Late Heian period witnessed a further flourishing of literature. The establishment of an office of poetry by the imperial court in 951 accounted for the initial explosion of interest in waka (tradtional Japanese poetry).

Diplomatic ties were increasingly cut with the Chinese Tang (T’ang) dynasty during the Middle Heian period and thus there was a movement away from the Chinese style of poetry (kanshi). There were frequent poetry contests between noble contestants—the imperial palace often acting as a backdrop to the proceedings. Although the Heian court demanded its subjects write in Chinese, they compromised by writing sections of their poems with Japanese script toward the end of the prose.

A popular literary writer of the Middle to Late Heian period was Murasaki Shikibu, who created a sensation with her novel Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji). Written around 1000 to 1008, it is often credited as the world’s first novel. The novel relates the customs and practices common to the Heian era. Men and women of high status powdered their faces white.

The imperial households wore stately robes, which were modeled on Chinese state robes. Several types of hats were worn, depending upon rank and the formality of the events. Women in the court would wear white silk with heavy brocade jackets and wore their hair long, often with the aid of wig attachments. It was fashionable to leave it unfastened so it flowed freely.

The Late Heian period witnessed what could be described as an elitist form of social hierarchy; it was highly formalized and exclusive. Although the Heian period underwent enormous social and cultural change it was economically stagnant; thus the majority of people were poor and uneducated.

Little social or cultural change occurred within this class with the exception of the rise of the warrior class, which was able to exist on the fringes of both classes with relative ease. Despite this, the Heian period left a great cultural heritage and contributed toward the social and cultural psyche of modern Japan.